Wagging the Tale 

A veteran newsman explores "conflation" and missed opportunities.

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I never thought much about the word “conflated” until Brian Williams brought it to my attention in his wimpy explanation of why he forgot which helicopter he was on. No, it wasn’t one actually shot down, but it looked a lot like it. Geez, they were both brown. Brian shouldn’t have conflated — he simply could have said he made a boo-boo.

Then there’s Fox’s Bill O’Reilly who made up all sorts of stuff too extensive to go into. (Style limits my word count.) Fox didn’t jump on Bill like NBC did on Brian because, well, because it’s Fox and conflation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

And there’s Hillary Clinton who actually did not come under fire in Bosnia in 2008, but once she got home she wanted us to think she had. The pictures showed a smiling Chelsea and a warm welcome with flowers and children. No gunfire. I think what she heard was popping balloons. The amazing part of this conflation is that Hillary apparently thought no one would notice. Now that’s a boo-boo right there.

But let’s be fair, Hillary is a politician and therefore expected to tell tall tales. The other two are reporters and therefore expected to tell the truth. This started well before the weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco in Iraq. There are some leaders who tell us stories simply because we like to hear them.

With these golden moments in mind, I began to look back over my modest career to dredge up missed opportunities. For example, before I actually became a paid journalist, during a daring trip across East Germany, I went to the Berlin Wall and plucked a piece of a brick out of it. This was long before the wall came down, at a time when East German guards walked around looking for somebody to shoot. I should have claimed they shot at me but missed, but I just didn’t think quickly enough.

Then there was the assignment in Ethiopia in 1985 when it was very much a communist country and I played it dangerous by taking pictures that weren’t allowed. We barely got out of the country with the pictures, actually had to throw them over the fence at the airport and dash for the plane. We made it, but wait — why didn’t I claim I was wrestled to the ground by angry Ethiopian security guards? Didn’t think of that either.

Then there was Moscow in 1991, when the Soviet Union was crumbling and nobody knew the rules or who was in charge. I had the nerve to steal an engraved bottle opener from the Kremlin. Why didn’t I think to have a KBG guy grab me and detain me for questioning? I could have been interrogated, locked in a gulag. Again, the thought didn’t cross my mind. Another missed opportunity.

I still have that piece of the Berlin Wall on my dresser. I have the banned pictures from Ethiopia, many of which were televised in my series on the famine of 1985. I have the Kremlin bottle opener that I dig out when somebody visits my house and wants a drink. Each of these mementos reminds me of where I was and what I did. And more recently it reminds me of a lost opportunity — a chance to tell Richmond viewers that I barely escaped with my life while covering news in a foreign land. But I missed it. Didn’t know the word conflation.

So we watch media icons who have enhanced their résumés en route to who knows where and wonder what will happen to them. Some ideas: I hope Brian gets a late night yuk-it-up show that he apparently wants. I hope Bill O’Reilly … well, I don’t really care what happens to Bill O’Reilly. As for Hillary, as I said, politicians make up stuff and whoever she runs against in this presidential thing will probably do the same. We’ll go to the polls and vote for the candidate we figure is the greater of two storytellers.

We’ve come a long way since the George Washington cherry-tree story. Don’t know whether it’s true, but it’s a good story. And just like the Robin Hood tale, a good story should be told.

Don’t let the truth bog you down. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.




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